It’s gut check time in Week 12 of the NFL. The playoff picture is becoming a little clearer but many questions still remain. One of the more interesting notes this season is the underwhelming NFC South division. Currently at 4-6, the Atlanta Falcons sit atop their division. Their opponents this week, the 6-4 Cleveland Browns, are in last place in the rugged AFC North. Does a team that finishes the regular season with a losing record deserve a spot in the NFL playoffs simply because they play in a week division or should that spot go to a different team with a better overall record?

Former Atlanta Falcon tight end and current CBS Sports analyst Tony Gonzalez took the time to answer these questions and more about his former team as well as talk about what he would do with the quarterback situation in Cleveland when it comes to staying with Brian Hoyer or giving Johnny Manziel the keys to the car.

The Browns are 6-4, but last in their division, while Atlanta is 4-6 and the leader in their division. Should the divisional leaders in the playoffs always get home field advantage even if they have a worse record than their away team? Or should division winners simply be granted a playoff spot and then let the records of the opponents decide who gets the home game?

Tony Gonzalez: “I’d keep the rule. Sometimes it’s the scheduling. You have a worse record because you have a tougher schedule. I think if you change the rule you open up a can of worms. You can go down that road of ‘Well, our strength of schedule is what messed us up. That’s why we have a worse record.’ Take the AFC North, probably the toughest division. In the NFC South, only Tampa Bay has a win against the AFC North so far. I think you’d have to change a few other rules before you could properly make this change. But I like the rule the way it is now. It usually works. This season it’s just an weird thing. In my 17 years in the NFL I hardly ever saw anything like this.”

Thoughts on if Cleveland will give Johnny Manziel any starts at all this season? Cleveland is 6-4, but last in their division. Do you think Johnny Football will get starts once Cleveland is mathematically eliminated from the postseason? 

TG: “If they’re mathematically eliminated it becomes ‘Decision Mode.’ They have a big decision. Do they want to keep Brian Hoyer or do they want to keep Johnny Manziel? If they’re even thinking about keeping Johnny, then you got to see what he can do. You have to give him the experience and see how he leads the team and how he handles adversity. You can’t do that in practice and you can’t do that in preseason games.

So if they think he’s the future of the team, they HAVE to play him. Say ‘Hoyer you did a great job but we’re going to start rotating Johnny in here.’ Or if you decide that Hoyer is your guy, you keep him in there. He hasn’t played excellent, but he’s done a good job limiting turnovers and has a winning record. If you like that, give him the contract and give him the money. That’s what the Browns staff will be figuring out.”

Injuries are a part of every NFL season. Last year the Falcons were decimated by them. While they’ve had injuries this year as well, they haven’t been as high profile because most are on the offensive line. You’ve played in this system, what are your thoughts on Atlanta’s struggles last season and this season?

TG: “It’s tough when you lose the offensive line because Matt Ryan is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. But he can’t go out there and always throw off his back foot because he’s being blitzed all the time. On that offense you have two of the most explosive players in the League with Roddy and Julio. If you don’t have the time to throw them the ball, you’re not getting the job done. And the line right now is doing okay. Last season we had the same problems with the offensive line. Sam Baker went down and Peter Konz just didn’t play well and was benched.

This season it’s been the same with our right tackle. That forced Jake Matthews to play on the left side and I think it would help him if he was the right tackle this year. When you lose linemen it cripples a team. They say the game is won in the trenches and when you’re offensive linemen are being affected, you’re going to suffer.”

Atlanta’s four non-divisional opponents all are a combined 29-12. Should Atlanta be considered the favorite to win the NFC South, even with a rough schedule remaining?

TG: “Absolutely. This NFC South is like the AFC North in the fact that the rankings seem to change every week. If New Orleans wins next week and Atlanta drops a game now New Orleans is going to take the lead. I do think it’s going to come down to those two teams. Right now, you have to give the edge to the Falcons because they have those four home games remaining and they’re very tough to beat at home while the Saints are struggling right now.”

Matthew Asher is a freelance journalist. From an early age, sports have played a major role in his life. He graduated from Emory University with a B.A. in Journalism. After college he spent 2 years working with CNN Sports and still occasionally writes sports articles for several publications both in the United States and Canada. His work can be found on Examiner.com.

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